Sports kit giants, Adidas and Puma used to be the same company, Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company).
The Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company was founded by the German brothers, Adolf and Rudolf Dassler.
Both brothers later had a fallout leading to the division of their shoe business and their town, Herzogenaurach.
Residents of the town even looked at the legs of other residents to identify which company they were allied to, before deciding to talk to them. This was why Herzogenaurach was called “the town of bent necks”.
The Beginning: The Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company
Adidas and Puma started off in the early 1920s as Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (German). (Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company in English).
The company was owned by brothers, Adolf Dassler who was also called Adi, and Rudolf Dassler who was also called Rudi.
The brothers started their business in their mother’s laundry room in the German town of Herzogenaurach, after learning the art of making shoes from their shoemaker father, Christoph.
Their first shoe looked like something that was born when an athlete shoe mated with a carpet slipper.
Rudi, the older of the two, was an extrovert, so he handled the sales while Adi, the younger and introverted one, designed the shoes.
The brothers later moved production to a rented factory where they hired ten employees and had an output of forty shoes per day.
They moved to their own factory in 1932, the same year they started looking international.
The brothers convinced German sprinter, Arthur Jonath, to wear their shoes during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics but his bronze medal was not enough to catapult their shoes into international prominence.
They only got their break during the 1936 Berlin Olympics when the United States African-American athlete, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals while wearing their shoes.
The Fallout: The Dassler Brothers at War
The origin of the feud that split the Dassler brothers is disputed.
One version says it was because Rudi had an affair with Adi’s wife while another says it was because their wives did not get along.
A third, stated to have been by Rudi himself, was because Adi’s wife was getting herself involved in the business.
Whichever it was, all accounts agree their wives were involved.
The feud reached its peak during the Royal Air Force aerial bombardment of Herzogenaurach in 1943, during World War II.
As Adi and his wife entered a bomb shelter that was already occupied by Rudi and his wife, Rudi exclaimed that the “dirty bastards are back again.”
Rudi claimed the statement was directed at the attacking airplanes but Adi insisted it was directed at he and his wife.
Not long after, the Nazi German military called Rudi up for war service. Rudi enlisted but fled his post after which he was arrested by the German military for desertion.
Later on, he was arrested by the Allies on suspicion of working for the German secret police, the Gestapo.
Rudi was sent to a Prisoner of War camp where he suffered miserably while Adi expanded the business and even started selling their shoes to American soldiers, making Rudi believe he had something to do with his arrests and detention.
After the war, both brothers appeared before an Allies war tribunal where each — backed by their wives — accused the other of being a Nazi supporter.
The tribunal later agreed that both brothers had minimal contribution to the Nazi party and decided to release them.
By then, the Dassler brothers had had enough of themselves and in 1948, agreed to dissolve the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company.
Adi got most of the workers and infrastructure, including their factory, while Rudi moved to the opposite side of Aurach river that divided the town into two rough halves and formed his new company, which would later become Puma.
Meanwhile, Adi named his share of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Company Adidas, which he derived from the three letters of his nickname and the first three letters of his last name (Adolf “Adi” Dassler)
Rudolf named his own share Ruda, which he got from the first two letters of his first and last names (Rudolf Dassler).
Rudi later dumped the dull sounding Ruda for the more athletic sounding Puma.
The Dassler Brothers Feud Divides Herzogenaurach
The dissolution of the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company was not the end of the rivalry. If anything, it only complicated it since it soon involved the whole town.
Adidas and Puma were the two major industries in Herzogenaurach, which meant many townspeople worked for one of either companies.
Workers and loyalists of one company refused to talk to, date or even marry workers and loyalists of the other company.
This was why Herzogenaurach was nicknamed “the town of bent necks” since residents bent their necks to see the footwear the other person was wearing before deciding whether to talk to them or not
Businesses like pubs and bakeries also allied themselves to one company and refused to serve workers and loyalists of the other business.
When patronizing businesses that served both brands, rival workers and loyalists refused to sit beside themselves.
Deliverymen that were on neither sides moved around with sneakers from both brands so they could easily switch as they made deliveries to their loyalists.
At Adidas, workers were forbidden from mentioning Puma. They simply referred to them as “The competitor on the other side of the Aurach”.
The feud also took a religious and political undertone since Puma loyalists were often Catholics and conservatives while Adidas were Protestants and social democrats.
Even the town’s two football teams were not left out. ASV Herzogenaurach was loyal to and kitted by Adidas while 1 FC Herzogenaurach pitched its tent with Puma.
On the national level, some fans of the rival companies refused to watch German matches whenever the German team was kitted by the other company.
Townspeople also used the feud to their benefit.
Maintenance workers who wanted to work at Rudi’s home deliberately wore Adidas sneakers so that the embarrassed Rudi — who did not want want any Adidas product inside his home — would order them to get a brand new pair of Puma sneakers from his basement, free of charge.
The Pele Pact
Adidas and Puma engaged in aggressive advertisement wars. Each was so occupied with outing the other that they did not not see Nike creep up behind them to dominate their market.
Naturally, Adidas had the upper hand because Adi created most of the Dassler Brothers shoes and got most of the equipment and workforce.
However, Rudi was a great salesman and he made up for it in his ability to get top athletes of the day to wear and endorse his products.
Adidas in return, tried fighting back by poaching Puma’s athletes and engaging in underhand tactics.
During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Adidas paid US sprinter Bob Hayes to secretly switch from endorsing Puma to endorsing Adidas without informing Puma of his switch in loyalty.
During the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Adidas had the Mexican Customs hold onto Puma shoes.
Puma had its payback during the 1970 World Cup when it paid Brazilian star, Pele to endorse its boots even though both agreed not to pay Pele to wear their boots.
Before the World Cup, both companies had an agreement, known today as the Pele Pact, that they would not sign Pele to endorse their products.
This agreement was reached because such attempt would lead to outrageous bids that would only benefit Pele.
However, just before the whistle went off for the beginning of the final match between Brazil and Italy, Pele asked the referee for some time to lace his boots.
The cameras zoomed on Pele as he bent and laced his boots, and it was revealed that he was wearing Puma boots. Some accounts say the cameramen were also in on the deal.
The person behind the Pele Pact was Hans Henningsen, a Puma agent who had negotiated an endorsement deal without Puma’s approval.
Puma executives thought the deal was too good to pass up when they heard of it, so they agreed to pay Pele $25,000 and an addition $100,000 for the next four years with a percentage of sales from Pele branded sneakers.
Death of Adi And Rudolf Dassler
Adi and Rudi refused to talk to themselves even at the point of death.
In 1974, as Rudi laid on his dying bed, a priest called Adi to his side. Adi went but refused to talk to his brother.
Adi himself died few months later.
Both brothers are buried in the same cemetery but their graves are as far apart as possible.
However, there are claims that both brothers had a secret meeting that lasted half a day, months before they died. Even if this is true, whatever they discussed remains a mystery.
Adidas and Puma Rivalry Today
Adidas and Puma are no longer under the ownership of the Dassler family.
Adidas is owned by thousands of shareholders while Puma is owned by Kering, an international luxury good company that also owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent
However, the rivalry continues although it is not as much as it used to be.
Today, it’s comparable to the Apple–Samsung or the McDonald–Burger King rivalry.
In September 2009, workers from both companies met for a friendly football match, which they played with a co-branded football.
However, the match is said to be more of a diplomacy act than anything.
Each still accuses the other of stealing its designs and Adidas once delayed Puma’s application to extend its headquarters.